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Jonathan Takiff | Electronics electricity

Vegas show offers a look at what's hot in the industry

CONTRARY TO popular myth, not everything that happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas. That's especially true this week, when in excess of 140,000 conventioneers are gathered there to gawk and squawk about the newest breakthroughs at the Consumer Electronics Show, which opened yesterday and continues through Thursday. Here are some of the top developments we've spotted so far, many of them video-centric.

The digital revolution

Our pick for the hottest product of 2008 has to be the digital converter box, which tens of millions of viewers of over-the-air television are going to need to continue watching "free TV" after analog transmissions cease on or around Feb. 17, 2009.

In just the first 48 hours after $40 rebate coupons for these boxes became available from the federal government on Jan. 1, more than 725,000 consumers had requested the chits at 888-DTV-2009 or www.dtv2009.gov.

And at least 14 brands are showing boxes at CES this week that have been certified for use by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration - from familiar, old-line brand names such as Zenith, Philco, Magnavox and RCA to new kids on the block MicroGEM and MaxMedia.

Makers are promising to get units into stores by the end of next month at prices ranging from $60 to $80 (before the $40 instant rebate).

And Dish Network is going them all one better with a converter box that will be available online for just $39.99, making it absolutely free after the rebate. Dish is hoping this goodwill gesture will attract customers for its satellite-TV service.

All the models I've spotted are small and basic, with simple attachments to connect to an antenna and a TV set via coaxial (RF channel 3 or 4) cable or "line-in" video and audio (yellow, red and white) cables.

They all have remote controls and offer access to a simple electronic program guide, digital closed-captioning, V-Chip control with downloadable rating and, not least, improved reception.

Show stoppers

There's no beating the Sony Rolly and the Starry Night Sleep Technology Bed when it comes to charm and sex appeal at this year's CES.

From the same R&D team that dreamed up Sony's Aibo robots comes the Rolly, a small, egg-shaped 2GB digital music player that sings and dances - flapping its end cups, flashing lights and rolling on its wheels in synchronized movement as music blasts through its speakers.

If you're computer-savvy, you can choreograph custom routines for a Rolly on your PC and pass the programming along to other Rollys for robotic chorus- line action. Look for this cutie come spring - priced, I'm guessing, at around $400.

Also wowing the Vegas crowds is a bed that could really keep you up nights - or not.

Designed by Leggett & Platt, a major manufacturer of bed and furniture components, the Starry Night Sleep Technology Bed features motorized pop-up speakers at all four corners, hidden subwoofers, a hard-drive entertainment server and an LCD video projector fitted into the middle of the headboard. All to transform the last bastion of quietude into an ultimate home theater or music club.

And when you're too pooped to party, Starry Night settles you in via sleep diagnostic technology that adjusts the bed to its inhabitants.

Feeling too cold or too hot? The bed can adjust the internal mattress temperature from 68 to 117 degrees, with separate left and right climate zones.

If you have a mild to moderate snoring habit, a sophisticated vibration detection system (originally designed for the military) responds by automatically tilting the sleep position seven degrees to open blocked nasal passages.

In the morning, a bedside monitor that chronicled your sleep movements offers suggestions for daytime and evening conduct to get a better rest the next night.

But be forewarned: If you lose sleep worrying about bills, this bed is not for you. Starry Night will hit the market in the first half of 2009 priced at $20,000 to $50,000, depending on features.

Alternate streams

The full- court press to destroy all traditional media continues unabated at CES with the multiplication of major-brand TV sets that can pick up content originating on the Internet.

Panasonic's flagship Viera Z850 plasma sets promise access to YouTube and the Picasa photo-sharing site.

Samsung and HP have aligned with Microsoft to offer bolt-on Windows Media extenders that will move content from a PC to the hardware makers' high-end TVs in wired or wireless fashion. This will give Microsoft yet another inroad (besides Xbox 360) to the living room TV.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the recent failure of movie download services from MovieBeam and WalMart, mail-order DVD rental giant Netflix will jump into the gap later this year with an on-demand streaming movie and video service customized for TV viewing.

LG Electronics has signed on to make the first boxes, which will let broadband-connected customers stream movies from the Internet directly to a television without getting a PC into the act.

Netflix is reportedly on the prowl here at CES for other manufacturing partners to support the service, which will build on Netflix's current selection of 6,000 streamable movies and TV episodes, as well as its price structure of $4.99 to $34.99 a month.

High-def disc resolve?

While HD-DVD disc backers Toshiba and Universal Studios are trying to put on a brave face at CES, their high-definition disc format may have taken a fatal blow in its duel with the Blu-ray format.

Formerly neutral Warner Bros. Entertainment announced on the eve of CES that it will stop pressing HD-DVD discs and release future high-def disc titles exclusively in Blu-ray, beginning in May, with the aim of ending the format war and getting wary consumers to invest in the new tech.

That defection leaves just two majors - Universal and Paramount/DreamWorks Animation - backing the HD-DVD format, while the mighty crop of majors exclusive to Blu-ray now includes WB, Walt Disney Home Entertainment, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, MGM and Lions Gate.

Adding insult to injury, HD-DVD backer Bill Gates of Microsoft made no mention in his CES speech Sunday night of a rumored "Ultimate" Xbox 360 with on-board HD-DVD drive, seemingly abandoning that cause. And the HD-DVD Promotions Group canceled its CES reception the same night.

"We've decided to not say anything in the heat of the moment and then consider our options after the show," said a flush-faced Universal executive, Ken Graffeo, when we cornered him.

As one door closes

Meanwhile, as one format conflict seems to be resolving, another has gone public.

This one pits giant Korean electronics companies LG and Samsung against each other in efforts to establish a new standard for sending broadcast digital-TV signals to mobile devices such as backseat TV sets, PDAs and cell phones.

LG and broadcast equipment manufacturer Harris are at CES singing the praises of a system called MPH (Mobile Pedestrian Handheld), while Samsung is leading the charge for a rival called A-VSB.

Both technologies add extra bits of data to a broadcaster's digital signal to make it more robust, and thus stable, in a moving vehicle.

LG spokesman John Taylor said field tests will be going on this spring for both systems, as well as a dark horse entry from Thomson, with the aim of establishing a standard by February 2009.

Yet more TV action

Just as we saw in October at the Japanese Electronics Show (CEATEC), "slim is in" was a major theme of TV makers at CES.

Hitachi and JVC showed LCD sets measuring just 1.5 inches deep; LG's top models are almost as svelte at 1.7 inches.

But the new skinny on the bloc is a Sony set that uses novel, organic-light-emitting-diode (OLED) technology to produce a super-bright screen that's less than a quarter-inch thick at the edges. The XEL-1 is an 11-inch model, premium priced at $2,200.

On the plasma front, Panasonic previewed a near-future (2009) set that is less than 1 inch thick and twice as energy-efficient as current models, power consumption being a bit of a sore point for plasma displays. The company also unveiled an elephant-sized, 150-inch mega plasma screen that will be available to the commercial market - and the super-wealthy - later this year.

JVC touted another advantage - LCD TVs with pop-out docks to accept an iPod Video, then blow up its iTunes content on a big screen with good-quality speakers.

Depth-defying TVs showing three-dimensional programming (mostly PC games) with special LCD shutter glasses may pump a little life into the dwindling rear-projection-TV business.

But Mitsubishi and Samsung have stereoscopic-ready models. Mits is soon to pair the feature with its novel, super-bright, laser-beam-illumination technology. 3-D also will be making its way into flat-panel sets, including a 46-inch LCD model from SpectronIQ and plasma sets (42 and 50 inches) from Samsung.

More cool stuff

Those new Lenovo portable computers have another feature I love - VeriFace facial technology that works with an embedded camera to recognize a user's face for log-in and help eliminate the need to remember passwords.

The smartest thing in power storage is the HydroPak portable generator from Millennium Cell and Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies that incorporates a water-activated, hydrogen on-demand fuel-cell cartridge.

The device will sell for $400, and a disposable cartridge (promising "infinite" shelf life and enough energy to recharge an average notebook computer eight to 10 times) will go for about $20.

Capitalizing on our love affair with both digital cameras and GPS systems is the Pharos Trips & Pics ($89.95). It's a GPS geo logger that enables consumers to record trip and photo locations and display them on a map.

Capitalizing on our love of, um, loved ones are tiny new GPS Locators - Pocketfinder and Pocketfinder Pets - that can be stashed in a backpack or hung on a collar, from Location Based Technologies. A monthly subscription activates the device. *

Send e-mail to takiffj@phillynews.com.

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